- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 663 x 552 mm
- Bequeathed by Miss Nancy Morris, the artist's sister 1988
The subject of Belle of Bloomsbury is a bull terrier bitch called Swirl. She was owned by the artist's sister, Nancy, who lived in Bloomsbury, London during the late 1920s and early 1930s. As Swirl was kept in this part of London for much of her life, the painting is titled Belle of Bloomsbury. Morris painted the picture especially for his sister while staying with her at Henley shortly after their mother's death. Swirl herself had died some fourteen years earlier.
The painting is based on an undated black and white photograph (Tate Archive) taken by Angus Wilson, a friend of the American collector and painter Paul Odo Cross. It shows Swirl sitting on a blanket in the garden of Cross's house near Fordingbridge. Belle of Bloomsbury is probably the only example of Morris copying a picture from a photograph, and though it is largely faithful to the original image several significant changes have been made. For example, extraneous features, such as the lawn, have been removed to bring Swirl into the centre of the picture; the dog's anatomy has been altered slightly, in particular, her head and left hindleg have been made more squat; the details of the ivy and the wall have been simplified for compositional effect. Perhaps most significant, however, is the introduction of colour.
The importance accorded to Swirl as the subject of a portrait suggests that Morris was well aware of how much his sister liked her dog. Indeed, within the painting various pictorial devices have been used to emphasise her status. For example, the dog, sitting on its hindquarters rather like a human, is enlarged beyond life-size. The strong colour contrast between her creamy white coat and deep blues, greens and terracotta tones in the rest of the picture, combined with the crisp delineation of her body, emphatically establishes her as the subject of the painting. The spiky impasto, particularly in the dog's body, gives the painting a physicality absent from the flat two-dimensional surface of the original photograph. This stress on physical presence is reiterated by the artist's deeply incised signature in the lower left corner, which accentuates the materiality of the paint itself.
Richard Morphet, Cedric Morris, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reproduced p.64
Technique and condition
The canvas utilised by the artist bears stamped markings at the reverse suggesting its previous use as yellow soya bean bagging. The lettering in these markings indicates a North American origin. The stretcher used by the artist had also been used before, its reverse face had once borne the tacked attachment of a canvas with a finer weave. After being tacked to the stretcher, the present canvas does not appear to have been sealed with layer of glue size in the usual way and when the artist applied the thin white oil ground layer it seeped through the canvas with little restraint. In 1988 an unusually thick deposit of grey-green dust was noted on the reverse of the canvas, presumably originating from the soya beans that had once been in contact.
The painting was carried out in an oil paint applied quite thickly in a paste-like consistency. The resulting impasto tends to be of a spiky nature or in the form of ridges at the brushmark edges.
At the time of Tate accession the thinness and porosity of the white ground layer allied with some defects in the stretcher were thought to justify preventative intervention. Thus, the canvas was removed from its stretcher and the reverse cleaned before reattachment to a new panelled strainer. The painting was surface cleaned and the frame strengthened, glazed and backboarded at the same date. Following his treatment the general condition and stability of the painting were regarded as good.
The painting has never been varnished. The frame in which the painting was acquired is believed to be the painting's original frame but would appear to be of nineteenth century origin. The frame had been cut down to fit the present canvas or one of similar size. The generally degraded state of the frame including the gold leaf and gesso on its face had been disguised and unified by the scumbled addition of a layer of burnt umber oil paint.